Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Request From the Audience

At the request of a member of the Dearest Readership who will remain anonymous, I'm posting a few of my academic papers from this year. Now, I'm doing this on a few conditions:

1. You will not criticize or suggest edits, regardless of how blatant the errors and/or opportunities may be. These papers are already turned in, and really, I'm sick of thinking about them anyway.

2. You will not plagairize me. Not even a little.

3. You will not say a word about my "writing voice" or subject matter. See condition #1.

Paul Primrose
Scottish Literature
Final Paper

The Usual Human Problem: Systems, Art, and Consumption in Lanark.

Lanark contains criticisms of political systems which transcend the Scottish reference points in the text. This paper seeks to identify some of those criticisms and to demonstrate that whatever Scottishness exists in Lanark, its purpose is to simply add character and not confine Lanark as a Scottish novel.
At its core, Lanark satirizes and subverts the political establishment of the developed world. One of the key themes in Lanark is that of control, expressed as being lost or gained by individuals (almost exclusively Thaw or Lanark) who operate within larger systems. For the purpose of this paper, I define "system" as any social, governmental, or religious organization created with the intent of helping people, but ultimately causing more problems for the protagonist. Because of the sheer number of systems in Lanark, I will focus on close readings of scenes in Unthank and the Institute to demonstrate a criticism that goes well beyond life in Glasgow, Scotland, or Britain.
In an epistolary interview with The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Gray is very clear about his feelings for systems: "My approach to institutional dogma and criteria - let's call it, my approach to institutions - reflects their approach to me. Nations, cities, schools, marketing companies, hospitals, [and] police forces have been made by people for the good of people . . . But when we see them working to increase dirt, poverty, pain and death, then they have obviously gone wrong" (Axelrod). These organizations were created, originally, for the public good but have "gone wrong" in Gray's opinion, which reflects a typical reaction to what is essentially a common experience in developed countries, as I will demonstrate later. I would add that Gray's attitude deserves a closer look because of the active role he perceives those organizations taking in oppressing individuals. The phrase "their approach to me" implies a system which doesn't just exist, but schemes. Gray clearly sees systems – at least, those in which he lives – as harmful to individuals.
The first hint of Gray's criticism of institutions comes on the second page of the text, in the form of a typically overheard discussion: "No, this may be a hellish place but it's all we have" (Gray, 4). This line is placed in the mouth of a typical customer, not within a specific conversation in the narrative, which, with the absence of further characterization of the anonymous speaker, places the observation in the realm of omniscient critique. Interestingly, the adjective "hellish" appears innocuous in this context, but gains immense meaning throughout the text.
Of course, Unthank really is hellish. Gray's choice of language in his descriptions of the place portrays a dim town – the search for light being another key theme in Lanark – run by a misanthropic bureaucracy. The first paragraph of the novel creates an atmosphere of poor light; adjectives like "dingy," "dim," "greyish and dead," "dark," and "black" are used to describe The Elite Cafe's internal and external environment (Gray, 3).
Unthank's meteorological atmosphere thus established, Gray demonstrates where his larger concerns lie: in the emotional atmosphere created by systems. It is Lanark's experience at the Social Security Office which offers the first real critique of a system based, presumably, on his experience with unemployment and the Scottish dole: " after two years I got work as a scene painter, and when I lost that job I lived on the dole and by art for a while" (Acker).
The Social Security-Welfare Division office is a system which provides identities and money; it functions as a processing area for new arrivals, like Lanark, in Unthank. It isn't an unfriendly place, but is certainly not efficient: "After a very long time an old man with bushy eyebrows arrived behind the counter. . ."(Gray, 20, my emphasis). According to a woman sitting next to Lanark, "It's a deliberate system. They think that by putting us through a purgatory of boredom every time we ask for money we'll come as seldom as we can" (Gray, 22). Once again, a word associated with hell comes from a minor character (though not anonymous, in this case), and once again, that word is used as a condemnation of a system. Further, Gray uses the office's employees as voices of a broken and inefficient system. The old man with bushy eyebrows says, "If you don't want to cooperate there's nothing we can do" (Gray, 20). The doctor is not concerned with Lanark's dragonhide, "a name more picturesque than scientific, perhaps, but the science of these things is in its infancy" (Gray, 21).
Perhaps what is most revealing at the Social Security office, however, is how currency is portrayed. When Lanark asks, entirely reasonably, how long his claim will last, the clerk replies: "It should last until you find work, but if you spend it before then this card entitles you to present another claim, which we shall be obliged, in due course, to honor. Eventually" (Gray, 22). In other words, Lanark will be able to receive more money, but only after suffering through more boredom in the office. Also, Lanark is "surprised by the size of these heaps and the careless way the clerk handled them" (Gray, 23). The notes are "creased and dirty and drawn from several currencies" (Gray, 23). Finally, Lanark mentions that he has "never learned to use it for everyone has a different notion of its value" (Gray, 23). I would argue that an inefficient agency which hands out various monies carelessly is an attempt to illuminate the problem with social programs in a capitalist society.
Not all readers will have first-hand experience with a social program such as Gray describes in the Social Security office. Even if Unthank's office is a parody of the Scottish dole, those readers who aren't Scottish understand Gray's critique. In fact, Gray himself does not believe his use of Scottish signifiers in Lanark makes the text Scottish: "I want to be read by an English-speaking tribe which extends to Capetown in the south, Bengal in the east, California in the west, and George Mackay Brown in the north. This does not preclude me from using any words of Scots origin that I please. . . "(Norquay). Further, "Any writer in English anywhere - if his range of reading is sufficiently wide - can take an exciting but generally unfamiliar word he heard in a nearby street and, if it is useful to him, make its meaning and nuance understandable to a reader in a different English idiom by the context in which he marshals it" (Norquay). While the language may be different, the experience of dealing with poor systems is the same, regardless of nationality.
Interestingly, Gray does not think the problem lies with the social programs themselves, but rather with the larger system that fails to support them. When asked in an interview with The Weekend Scotsman what his vision of heaven entailed, Gray responded:
Heaven is the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic where everyone lives by making and doing good things for each other. The basic wage of the poorest is never less than half the wage of the richest employer. All profits are spent on four kinds of public work: excellent public housing; an education service whose largest classes are ten pupils per teacher; a health service whose nurses have the same wages as the doctors; and electricity generated by wind, water, sunpower and the earth's internal heat.

Gray's critique of society comes into sharpest focus when looking at how a plutocracy affects individuals in the lower classes. If the above quote describes Gray's heaven, then hell already exists in a system in which money is the prime motivator (not love of a job, as implied in his heaven) and class separator. While Gray's critique of capitalism may not be explicit, his portrayal of the cost of capitalism is clear in his use of consumption as metaphor. Systems, then, are a major source of emotional pain according to Gray, and the pain is derived from a society which requires the pursuit of money instead of the pursuit of art.
The Institute is, at first glance, a progression from the dreary atmosphere in Unthank. The Institute occupies part of the same world as Unthank, but where Unthank is mostly cold and dim the Institute is well-lit and warm. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that again characters' dialogue, like the dialogue in Unthank, reveals Gray's critique of society. Though Gray does describe the Institute in various prose passages, dialogue between knowledgeable authority figures (or even random strangers without power) and Lanark provide Gray the opportunity for commentary. This critique is very clearly aimed outside the text, and speaks not just to problems with Scottish culture but with all capitalist economies.
One of the first people Lanark meets at the Institute is another new patient, a sick man in the bed next to him. When Lanark engages him in discussion about his arrival in the Institute and his previous life, the man says, "I seemed surrounded by leeches, using their vitality to steal vitality from others, and by sponges, hiding behind too many mouths, and by crustaceans, swapping their feelings for armour. I saw that a decent human life should contain discipline, and exertion, and adventure, and be unselfish" (Gray, 54). As with many of Gray's commentaries, this one is somewhat vague, but clearly speaks to his outlook on the human condition. The sick man does not say which people in which occupations were leeches, sponges, or crustaceans, but readers can certainly relate to the sentiment. Later in the conversation, Lanark asks the sick man about suffering – essentially asking the meaning of life within a context of struggle. The sick man replies, "A good life means fighting to be human under growing difficulties. A lot of young folk know this and fight very hard, but after a few years life gets easier for them and they think they've become completely human when they've only stopped trying" (Gray, 55). This is another vague answer to a very complicated question, but I would argue that Gray is condemning a system in which money is the primary goal – and thus the path to making life easier – and in which art is not valued highly as the ability to generate more money. This belief, that art is one of the essential components of being human, echoes throughout the text.
Art's value in a capitalist society is subsequently one of the central questions in Lanark. When asked in an interview about the difficulties of producing art in Glasgow, Gray responded, ". . . but my character Thaw did not see the creation of Glasgow art-works as a problem, he saw it as a goal. The problem is getting time and money to do the job if you believe you can. The problem is poverty - the usual human problem" (Norquay).
The discussion of this central question is framed within the contexts of cost and consumption. Interestingly, this discussion is not always obvious, but I argue that almost any time in the Institute that Lanark eats or improves his living situation it comes at a cost which Gray takes care to point out.
As mentioned earlier, where Unthank is dim and cold, the Institute is bright and heated. Heat, in the Institute, is a metaphor for – and in some cases synonymous with – love. Ozenfant tells Lanark, "The heat made by a body should move easily through it, overflowing . . . in acts of generosity and self-preservation. But many people are afraid of the cold and try to keep more heat than they give, they stop the heat from leaving. . . " (Gray, 68). When discussing Lanark's dragonhide Ozenfant says, "But no heat was getting in! And since men feel the heat they receive more than the heat they create the armour makes the remaining human parts feel colder" (Gray, 68). When Lanark first learns that the Institute is heated by the dying, he claims that "for cheerful healthy folk to profit from it is atrocious!" (Gray, 69). Ozenfant replies, "What would you prefer? A world with a cesspool under it where the helplessly corrupt would fall and fester eternally? That is a very old-fashioned model of the universe" (Gray, 68). It is through the concept of heat that Gray questions how a system consumes and subsumes love; the loss of love is the emotional cost of living in a capitalist system.
Another aspect of "consumption" in Lanark revolves around the literal meaning of the word. When Lanark meets the catalyst, she tells him she hates the Institute because of "The hypocrisy. The way they pretend to care while using the patients up" (Gray, 89). Interestingly, Lanark's reply sounds remarkably like he's trying to rationalize, justify, or otherwise defend the Institute: "But they could help nobody if they didn't use their failures," (Gray, 89). To which the catalyst replies, "You don't hate this place if you can say that" (Gray, 89). In this exchange, Gray outlines the problem with social programs in capitalist governments. Clearly, current social welfare programs do not, in Gray's opinion, do enough to address poverty. In fact, as money is exchanged between classes in a capitalist society, someone has to lose.
Perhaps Gray's most important metaphor in his discussion of the cost of systems is the concept of cannibalism. Interestingly, cannibalism takes both literal and metaphoric forms: just as the Institute is heated by the dying, food is produced by – and the byproduct of – people. A discussion on page 98 between Lanark and Rima about whether or not they should eat the Institute's food highlights the dilemma of someone who lives within a system that requires people to subsume others. Lanark tells Rima, "You know that the Institute gets light and heat from people with our kind of sickness. Well, the food is made from people with a different kind of sickness" (Gray, 98). Rima's answer underscores the essential problem of rebelling against capitalism: "Anyway if I stop eating I'll die, and nobody extra is going to be cured" (Gray, 98). Ultimately, Monro, once again speaking as an agent of a system, says ". . . you must eat what you're given and not fight the current" (Gray, 100). The implications of that statement are obvious.
The textual source of this food is important, too. In the Institute, the kind of sickness one has determines how they will be consumed. Lanark and Rima want love but seem to fear it; people with their kind of sickness, according to Lanark, are used to generate light and heat. Meanwhile, the catalyst's sickness seems to derive from her willingness to sacrifice her body in exchange for love. In essence, those who are afraid of love are used to generate heat; those who do anything for love are used to generate food. I would argue that the physical sacrifice of people like the catalyst is symbolically represented by the transformation of body into food.
Cannibalism is also mentioned specifically by people in the Institute. Monsignor Noakes, as the former director of the Institute, could be a symbolic mouthpiece of a contrite leader in a cannibalistic system. It is Noakes, after all, who urges Lanark to warn others away from the Institute, to "Tell them they must not enter this institute. A little more faith, and hope, and charity, and they can cure their own diseases" (Gray, 81). In three separate lines on page 81, Noakes uses verbs which relate to consumption: "Let them enter like an army of men, not wait to be swallowed like a herd of victims," and "In all the corridors there are sounds of increased urgency and potency, and behind it all a sound like breathing of a hungry beast. I assure you, the institute is preparing to swallow a world" (Gray, 81, my emphasis). Later, Noakes tells Lanark and Rima that "The only relic of my ancient status is the privilege of attending ecclesiastical conferences in continents where the connection between feeding and killing folk is less obvious" (Gray, 101).
Noakes, as a religious figure, is perhaps the second most important character in Lanark specifically because of what comes out of his mouth. Gray is not an atheist: ". . . like many others I feel God - feel in harmony with the infinite and the eternal - in rare moments of highly privileged smugness" (Acker). Noakes, therefore, might be understood as a representative of a system which worked but was corrupted by greed. In fact, I would argue that Noakes' various lines on pages 101 and 102 lie at the heart of the novel.
Noakes says: "Cannibalism has always been the main human problem. When the Church was a power we tried to discourage the voracious classes by feeding everyone regularly on the blood and body of God. I won't pretend the clergy were never gluttons, but many of us did . . . eat only what was willingly given" (Gray, 101). Christianity once prevented systems of greed.
Noakes continues, "Since the institute joined with the council it seems that half the continents are feeding on the other half. Man is the pie that bakes and eats himself and the recipe is separation" (Gray, 101, my emphasis). Christianity lost its power when subsumed within capitalist systems.
Noakes explains that the Institute "could be easily destroyed if it was a simple murder machine. But it is like all machines, it profits those who own it, and nowadays many sections are owned by gentle, powerless people who don't know they are cannibals and wouldn't believe if you told them" (Gray, 102). Capitalist systems encourage consumption in ways which prevent its participants from understanding or even seeing its toll on the lower classes.
Finally, Noakes declares that Lanark and Rima should warn others away from the Institute "Because it is mad with greed and spreading like cancer, because it is fouling the continents and destroying the handiwork of God! It is horrible . . . but sometimes I care less for those the institute eats than for the plants, beasts, pure air and water it destroys" (Gray, 102). Willing participants in systems which consume natural resources should not expect much spiritual redemption.
Lanark's political discussions, whether framed within bureaucracies like that of the Social Security Welfare office or espoused in detail through characters like Noakes, are intended to raise questions about capitalism which transcend issues surrounding Scottish and British governments. Further, Gray is acutely aware of the impact that writing – his or anyone else's – has on individuals within systems. When asked about the political consequences of Lanark, Gray responded, "I believe that every book soothes or upsets some idea the reader lives by. This has political consequences, which is why bully-boy governments enforce censorship" (Norquay). Notice that Gray does not mention specific governments; he is fully aware that his writing may have Scottish reference points but speaks to all capitalist societies: "Whoever describes life convincingly must do so in concrete particulars, so of course Scottish material does not inhibit me - it is the most available, and much that happens here is very likely what happens in Chicago, Zimbabwe and Kensington" (Norquay). Just as humanity in Lanark is cannibalized by a larger system, the Scottish particulars in Lanark are subsumed by the larger political questions.

Acker, Kathy. "Public Interview at the ICA, London." 1986. 14 Dec 2004 .

Axelrod, Mark. "Questionnaire 6." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 1995. 14 Dec 2004 .

Gray, Alasdair. Lanark. Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Ltd., 2002.

Norquay, Glenda. "Questionnaire 1." Cencrastus Edinburgh Jan 1983. 14 Dec 2004 .

Unknown. "Questionnaire 4: The Heaven and Hell Quiz." The Weekend Scotsman 30 Jan 1993. 14 Dec 2004


Paul Primrose
Medieval Literature
Essay 1

Futility and Salvation in The Wanderer
Throughout The Wanderer's second ubi sunt passage in lines 92-97 and the 16 lines immediately following it, the poet uses references to the unhappy pagan world in order to console the reader of Christian salvation. In this paper I will demonstrate that by asking rhetorical questions and ultimately proposing a behavioral strategy for coping with material loss, the poet implicitly subverts the Anglo Saxon pagan world during the last 30 lines of the poem.
The Wanderer's first 90 lines serve as a preamble to the last 30, describing the emotional pain the wanderer encountered as he searched for another lord and mead hall in which to find camaraderie. The paragraph beginning at line 64 serves as a transition in The Wanderer, during which the focus of the poem shifts subjects from the everyman's worldly experience to examples of material impermanence. Immediately following this paragraph the first speaker introduces a second speaker; a man who is "wise at heart" (lines 88-89). By transferring the literal voice of reason to an everyman, the poet has created a character to which the Anglo Saxon will relate, but more importantly, a voice to which they are obliged to listen. This voice offers hope and glory, but at a cost which previous Anglo Saxon heroes like Beowulf weren't asked to pay. Lines 92 - 116 focus on this informed second voice's Christian interpretation of worldly unhappiness, his evidence that Anglo Saxon paganism is ineffective in addressing this unhappiness, and a behavioral approach to resolving these feelings.
The wise man's first words are those of someone whose material happiness has literally run off: "Where has gone the steed?"(line 92). He spends the next five lines, fully one third his monologue, ostensibly mourning the loss of traditional staples of Anglo Saxon heroic life. "Where has gone the giver of treasure"(93), he asks of good kings who rewarded great warriors. "Where has gone the place of the banquets"(93-94), he asks of mead halls where Anglo Saxon heroes ate and generally had a good time. In fact, not only are the mead halls gone, but so are the good times themselves: "Where are the pleasures of the hall?" (94). Repetition of the word "where" in these lines establishes a rhythm which is counterbalanced and resolved with a final rhythmic sentence, which in turn reveals yet more culture that has disappeared, if it ever truly existed at all: "Alas, the gleaming chalice; alas, the armored warrior; alas, the majesty of the prince!" (94-96).The voice has summed up a sense of desperation in six lines, and is established as someone whose loss and suffering draws sympathy if not empathy. This new voice's sadness resounds within the poem's larger context, and presents specific pagan lifestyles which, when absent, appear to be the source of emotional pain.
This ubi sunt passage echoes a previous passage in lines 75-80, and certainly seems sad, but the voice is in fact asking rhetorical questions. The pagan symbols in lines 92 – 95 are destined to assume an entirely different role as poetic images by the end of the voice's monologue. The voice knows perfectly well that the steed, man, chalices, and halls are gone specifically because of their impermanence. Moreover, their absences will soon be referred to as proof of earthly limitations; their true value called into question.
Before demonstrating how pagan symbols are impotent remedies for the sadness of today's world, however, the poet expands his argument beyond mere materialism to include time and weather in their role in everyman's happiness.
A lighted past with a "gleaming chalice" (95) yields to a dark present: "that time has passed away, has grown dark under the helm of night as though it had never been"(96-97, my emphasis). A closer look at time in this passage shows that time is playing interesting tricks on the Anglo Saxon world. Its passing has bereft them of a glorious past in which paganism provided at least some happiness, and certainly more than can be found in the present. Simultaneously, the voice will condemn paganism, or at least offer strategies for living in a materialistic world, by the end of the passage at line 116. Images of things like horses, chalices, and mead halls are replaced by images of weather as the voice transitions from lamenting the loss of a pagan past to pointing out everyone's present miseries. Two of three aspects of time – past and present – are established as unhappy places to be for their own reasons. By creating a happy past that no longer exists and also pointing out the problems of the present world, the poet uses the second voice to emphasize the value of the future. Since eternal happiness is attainable through Christian salvation, paganism's failures are particularly illuminated against the background of time.
This shift from past to present is the key to the passage and the poem on the whole. Before this point the poem has focused on physical loss in the past and subsequently fettered emotions, but now the source of pain is expanded to include the present and larger physical world.
Necessarily, the larger physical world is not a nice place. A strong poetic symbol, a wall, is used as the starting reference point: "Now there remains among the traces of those dear people a wall, remarkably high..."(97-99). This wall serves as the fundamental structure around which present Anglo Saxon life disintegrates: "The might of ash spears has snatched away the men . . . and storms beat upon those heaps of stones"(99-102). In lines 102 to 105, bad weather assumes a metaphoric identity as a source of pain and terror: "A falling snowstorm fetters the earth, winter's howling. Then darkness comes; the shadow of night spreads gloom and sends from the north fierce hailstorms to the terror of men." The second voice is using images as symbols of present unhappiness, but the images themselves have evolved from pagan materialistic items to meteorological events.
The poem's implicit critique of Anglo Saxon society is suddenly made evident when it draws the final link between materialism and the larger physical world: "The whole kingdom of earth is full of hardship; the dispensation of fate makes mutable the world below the heavens" (105-106, my emphasis). The voice has implicitly stated that worldly unhappiness goes beyond local or kin affiliations. Misery is a common experience, and therefore a unifying one. This notion of commonality subverts the Anglo Saxon pagan warrior ethos, wherein the Other is by definition an enemy. A second subversion of that ethos will take place before the end of the poem, but not before the second voice answers the rhetorical ubi sunt questions it asked earlier, in lines 92 through 96: "Here wealth is ephemeral; here a friend is ephemeral; here man is ephemeral; here kinsman is ephemeral; all this foundation of earth will become desolate"(106-109).
With that, the second voice, the voice to which an Anglo Saxon should listen, states the fundamental problem with pagan life and steps back into the narrative. Temporary happiness may have once been found in mead halls, treasure, and kin, but those are material sources; by definition confined to the earth, and the earth really is not all that happy in the first place. Now that the second voice, the wise man, has spoken his piece, a solution to the question of spiritual transience is presented by the first voice.
The poem's final paragraph begins with a description of the enlightened second voice offering a behavioral model quite different from typical Anglo Saxon pagan life: "Thus the wise man spoke his mind, and sat apart in thought" (111-112). The wise man literally eschews camaraderie, a staple of Anglo Saxon behavior, in order to contemplate his spiritual future. The first speaker is now able to expound on Christianity through the wise man and thus to the larger audience. His closing words provide specific guidelines for behavior which offer an Anglo Saxon a solution to worldly sadness: ". . . a man must never too hastily express his anxieties from his heart, unless the man knows beforehand how to effect the cure with courage" (112-114). The poem's final line is a benediction, simultaneously encouraging a new, non-pagan way of life and inviting grace into the hearts of those who seek it; "consolation from the Father in heaven, where for us all the immutable abides" (115-116). The pagan Anglo Saxon, well aware of past and present futility, now has the hope and promise of a future.
Unknown. "The Wanderer." Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Ed. S.A.J. Bradley. London: Everyman's Library, 2000. 322-325.


Blogger Rosellen said...

As the member of The Readership who requested this submission, I'm barely able to understand the sense that these papers make. However, what I do understand is that you are a gifted writer, both academically and for the general public, and now I request a sample of your original fiction.

Just to get you started, in case you don't have something ready to go: how about doing a Charles Dickens thing and feed us installments of something which you have no idea how it will end?

4:10 AM  

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